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Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Chabad is a trend in the Hasidic movement founded in the 18th century by Israel b. Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov. Chabad was created by Shneur Zalman of Lyady, a disciple of Dov Baer the maggid of Mezhirich and of Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk. When Menahem Mendel immigrated to Eretz Israel (1777), Shneur Zalman replaced him as leader of the Hasidim of Belorussia.

When Shneur Zalman assumed this leadership, he began to formulate his specific doctrine, which was published 20 years later in the book, Likkutei Amarim, also known as Tanya (Slavuta, 1796). He developed a systematic theosophical doctrine concerning the conceptions of God, the mystical world of the spheres, the inner meaning of the revealed world, and of human religious obligations and mystical orientation, as based on the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria. Chabad teachings combined Lurianic Kabbalah in its original form with the Hasidism of the Ba’al Shem Tov and particularly the innovations of the maggid of Mezhirich.

Chabad theosophy is based on the mystical contention that all things in the world are imbued with dynamic divine vitality, and this divine presence is the foundation for all reality. The assertion that the divine element permeates every object, every act, and every thought, becomes the criterion for evaluating the whole of human experience. When seen in the light of the omnipresence of God, physical reality is grasped as a garment or as a vessel for the divine presence. Hence a dialectical worldview emerges that perceives a dual meaning for all existence. Therefore, reality is grasped simultaneously as a divine essence and a physical manifestation, as a spiritual interior and a material exterior, as divine unity and a corporeal multiplicity, as Infinity and Nothingness, known as Ayin, and as finite existence, known as Yesh. These two perspectives incorporating opposite visages simultaneously condition one another and are united within each other.

The foundation for divine worship is based on the assumption that a divine essence is at the root of every physical and spiritual phenomenon and that beyond all external reality there lies a hidden truth. Therefore, the essence of the mystical worship is the realization of the new consciousness of the divine presence that radiates upon man or is contemplated by him. Chabad took it upon itself to elaborate systematically these mystical contentions and paradoxical observations of the unity of opposites underlying all existence. Chabad stresses both intellectuality, hence its name Hokhmah, Binah, Da’at (“Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge”), and numerous mystical teachings concerning the unity of opposites as well as tracts on rapture and ecstasy, contemplation and meditation.

Chabad described two contradictory divine wills within the Godhead which relate simultaneously to both “creation from nothingness into being” and “annihilation of being into nothingness.” This perception further demanded a two-fold human commitment regarding divine worship: one is required to meditate on the concrete revealed existence of the Yesh (“being”), and equally to concentrate upon the concealed realm of the ayin (“nothingness”). The first demand focuses on Torah study and on the minute observation of the commandments – both described as “drawing down the divine abundance” from the abstract infinite to the concrete finite reality (hamshakhat ha-shefah ba-gashmiut), while the second demand focuses on the mystical ascent from the concrete to the abstract, accomplished through the divestment of corporeality, contemplation, and rapture (hafshatat hagashmiut, ha’alah, hitbonenut and hitpa’alut). The former is perceived in Chabad as transformation of the Ayin into Yesh while the latter is understood as transformation of the Yesh into Ayin. These transformations are possible since Chabad teachings acknowledge the existence of a single divine entity which transforms itself continuously from ayin into yesh and from yesh into ayin, while viewing all other apparent reality as an illusion devoid of any substance. This view is called acosmism, a concept that express the argument of the sole existence of the divine essence and denies that the world is a distinct entity.

Shneur Zalman of Lyady argued: “For just as He was alone one and unique before the six days of creation, so He is now after the creation. This is because everything is absolutely as nothing and naught in relation to His being and essence” (Tanya, p. 219). Chabad teachings on this unity of opposites, on acosmism, and on dual divine worship, were published and disseminated in numerous books from the end of the 18th century until today.

In Chabad, in the first few generations, the leadership of the zaddik was mainly spiritual: encounters between him and the members of his congregation were devoted to the study of Torah, and to ethics and discussion of the problems of the community. In the 20th century, Chabad leadership underwent a profound transformation and generated a messianic resurgence in the wake of the Holocaust followed by a movement of repentance (hazarah bi-teshuvah) thereby developing a comprehensive spiritual and social bonding between the zaddik and his followers that was nurtured by messianic hopes.

The immense messianic resurgence followed by the repentance movement produced both enthusiasm in some quarters and sharp criticism in others. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the concern for Jewish interests often brought the leaders of Chabad into conflict with the authorities, but sometimes they were able to cooperate with them for the benefit of the community.

In 1812, the founder of Chabad fled with the Russian armies before Napoleon’s advance and instructed his followers to give active support to the Russian side. All Chabad zaddikim, with the exception of Menahem Mendel (1902–1994), who lived in the United States, were imprisoned by the Russian authorities in different periods and were liberated only after special intervention.

The Chabad Hasidim were the first Hasidic teachers to establish yeshivot (Tomekhei Temimim) and they also developed a ramified speculative and propagandist literature as well as alternative historiography that challenged the position of the Haskalah or enlightenment as well as of academic scholarship. The first and principal center of Chabad until World War I was in Belorussia and from there it spread to different areas of eastern Europe. Chabad established a settlement in Eretz Israel and even reached central Russia. In Soviet Russia, Chabad conducted widespread clandestine activities and during the period between the two world wars transferred their center first to Latvia, then to Poland, and finally to the United States. After World War II they participated in rescue activities and also worked in European Displaced Persons camps and among the Jews of North Africa.

Two large centers of Chabad Hasidism emerged, one in the U.S. and the other in Israel (Kefar Habad), but its emissaries were active in many countries. In the last few decades of the 20th century Chabad divided into separate groups which differed in their perceptions surrounding the messianic beliefs focused upon the last rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is perceived as the last Chabad mentor before the long-awaited redemption.


R. Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Chabad Hasidism (1993); N. Loewenthal, Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Chabad School (1990); R. Elior, “Chabad: The Contemplative Ascent to God,” in: A. Green (ed.), Jewish Spirituality (1987); idem, “The Lubavitch Messianic Resurgence: The Historical and Mystical Background,” in: P. Schafer and M. Cohen (eds.), Toward The Millennium, 383–408; G. Greenberg, “Mahane Israel–Lubavitch 1940–1945: Actively responding to Khurban,” in: A. Berger (ed.), Bearing Witness to the Holocaust 1939–1989 (1991), 141–163; idem, “Redemption after Holocaust According to Mahane Israel-Lubavitch 1940–1945,” in: Modern Judaism, 12 (1992), 61–84; E. Schweid, Bein Hurban Li-Yeshua (1994), 39–94; A. Rapoport Albert, “Hagiography with Footnotes: Edifying Tales and the Writing of History in Hasidism,” in: Studies in Jewish Historiography in Memory of Arnaldo Momigliano, supplement to History and Theory (1988).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Mordecai baron. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license